Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

This short, macabre story is chilling in its portrayal of the fiendish young boy. Saki takes the boy’s point of view toward the annoying, officious cousin, who, the boy believes, delights in tormenting him. The boy lives almost entirely in his imagination. The real world is that which is ruled by adults such as his cousin, who are most disagreeable to him. In this aspect, Conradin seems to be a perfectly normal child at odds with the demands of the cruel outside world. What sets Conradin apart from other children is his almost pathological escape from reality and his achieving his revenge through the agency of the wild animal. What is usually only imaginary to a child is carried to fruition, and the child relishes it.

Conradin’s veneration of the ferret comes to take up more and more of his waking hours after his cousin has sold his beloved hen. It becomes an obsession with him, and the reader finally comes to understand that he prays that the beast will kill his cousin. When the ferret actually kills the cousin, the most shocking thing is the boy’s nonchalant, almost happy acceptance of the event. It is the boy’s reaction to the killing that takes the story out of the realm of reality.

Although Conradin’s condition is unusual in that he has been diagnosed as having a short time to live, he could, to an extent, be perceived as a typical boy escaping in his imagination from the cold world. Even his adoration of the ferret seems to differ only in degree from what could be considered normal. Sometimes normal children imagine killing their adult antagonists, and in this case, it could be considered accidental that his cousin is killed (although Conradin makes no effort to warn her, he fully expects her to emerge from the shed victorious, as she usually does when in conflict with him). However, the realization that his prayers have been answered and his cold, calm acceptance of the accomplished fact are shocking.

In a sense, then, the story can be seen as a child’s fantasy of getting even with the nonunderstanding world of adults. It is a kind of wish fulfillment of which many children dream. The horror is that Saki presents it as a reality, and the boy as fully enjoying the event.